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Jazz conductor Oliver to bring swing to Fort Hill

Matt Skibinski | 7/30/2008, 5:14 a.m.
Former Roxbury resident Kendrick Oliver plans to get the audience on their toes and dancing when he brings his 19-piece New Life Orchestra to this year’s Jazz at the Fort concert at Highland Park in Fort Hill on Sunday. Berklee College of Music

Kendrick Oliver hasn’t set foot in Roxbury in over a decade. When the renowned bandleader and one-time local returns this weekend to Fort Hill — Highland Park, to be specific — he hopes to see plenty of foot-stomping on his old stomping grounds.

A bald tuba player whose pouched cheeks recall Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver will lead his New Life Orchestra — a 19-piece jazz orchestra that offers jumping swing beats, searing brass lines and virtuosic solos — in the free “Jazz at the Fort” performance at the four-acre park this Sunday at 5 p.m.

The outdoor concert, which will feature Count Basie-style big band jazz with spiritual and light-gospel influences, aims to literally keep the audience on its toes.

“It’ll be a mostly groove- and swing-oriented program, stuff that people at the park will be able to dance to,” Oliver said.

For Oliver, it will be his first-ever performance in Roxbury and a chance to reconnect with a community of which he was once a part. He lived there during his time at the Berklee School of Music in the ’90s.

“It’s been a long time; I haven’t been back there since, I would say, the spring of 1997,” Oliver said. “So it’ll be a fun time to go back.

“I’m very familiar with the park we’re going to be playing at,” he added. “This is a very culturally rich area, so I’m looking forward to going back and blessing them with some good music.”

A Texas native who became enamored with the big band sound through listening to his parents’ jazz recordings as a child, Oliver founded the New Life Orchestra during his time at Berklee with the goal of adding a new spark to the increasingly outdated musical genre.

“There’s something very unique about a jazz orchestra, or ‘big band,’” Oliver said. “It’s different from a quartet because there’s so many horns, being unselfish, working in unison to come out with one sound … I think it’s the most unique jazz art form ever created, and it’s unfortunate so many bands have gone away.”

The group’s start came during Oliver’s sophomore year at Berklee, when, as a member of the school’s Black History Month Committee, he suggested putting together a large big band ensemble to celebrate Black History Month.

When a staff member suggested he lead the ensemble himself, Oliver said, he was surprised.

“I remember feeling overwhelmed,” he said. “I had never dreamed of leading a jazz orchestra. I always wanted to be part of one, but I mean, I was thrust right in the forefront of leading this big concert in the performance center, 1,500 people watching. I just kind of dove in …”

But the New Life Orchestra is less about history than it is about the future. Oliver said the group seeks to revive the genre and “take big band where it’s never gone before.”

“That’s why we try different art forms. We do different things with the band,” he said. “Not just swing music; we have different programs that we do, which tend to concentrate on different areas of music.”

The band draws much of its inspiration from Count Basie, one of Oliver’s childhood idols, who was known for his ensemble’s searing, energetic swing pieces.

“The Count Basie rich sound has always been a big thrill of mine … My dream was actually to play with the Count Basie jazz orchestra,” Oliver said.

According to Oliver, Sunday’s concert will feature several Count Basie pieces that he hopes will appeal to listeners of all ages.

“You go to a Kanye West concert, and you’ll see, you know, people 25 and under. You go to a Harry Connick [Jr.] concert, you’ll see the 30’s, 40’s,” he said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap. We want to try to bridge the gap with the younger people and bring them in as well.”

Oliver promised audience members “an awesome time” and recommended that those attending the concert bring lawn chairs and blankets to sit on.

“But leave some room,” he said. “Leave lots of room for dancing.”

For more information about this year’s Jazz at the Fort concert, call 617-747-2447.